Comment & Analysis
Jun 4, 2020

Students with Disabilities Have Long Sought Online Learning. It Must Continue and Improve

The coronavirus has brought online and remote learning to Trinity. Now they must be built upon, writes Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird.

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird Op-Ed Contributor
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Over the past few weeks, the Disability Service has been conducting surveys and collecting information about the student experience with online learning. In a recent survey amongst 90 students with different disabilities, it was reported that 49.5 per cent indicated that their experience of online learning was positive, 29 per cent said it was negative, 18 cent had a mixed experience.

Students with disabilities have long been seeking support to enable online learning and remote learning, far longer than the current coronavirus crisis has been going on. The wants and needs of students with disabilities have been dismissed and deemed “too difficult” to implement, but the College quickly transitioned to online learning when non-disabled students needed this resource. It shouldn’t have taken a global health emergency for accessible learning to be put in place.

The College has spoken about conducting a survey into student’s experiences with online learning and the recent exam period but, nothing about that has been published yet. The College and the SU have been largely silent on the processes on online learning, although it has been announced that the 2020/21 academic year will include blended learning – a mix of online and face-to-face learning.


Students with disabilities have long been seeking support to enable online learning and remote learning, far longer than the current coronavirus crisis has been going on

Experiences with online learning have been varied. Niamh Barry, the videographer part of the new Trinity Ability Co-op run by and for students with disabilities, has produced an informative video about some of the different experiences of students with disabilities with online learning and exams.

Ronan Lowther, a mature student entering into third-year Sociology and Social Policy, shared his experience with online learning with his diagnoses of dyslexia and ADHD.

Lowther pointed out the positives in the availability of slides and notes before or during a lecture so that he could follow along, which is a requirement in his LENS report, but not always adhered to by lecturers. This is a theme reiterated by many students.

On the other hand, Lowther mentioned that there were negatives to online learning in the difficulty it can pose in connecting with the learning environment: “Online learning compared to the traditional learning environment we have in Trinity was greatly lacking, and I feel that it kind of acted as a form of alienation between students, their lecturers, teaching assistants and the course material itself.”

Roisin Hackett, SF Sociology and Social Policy, spoke about her experience as a disabled student with mobility requirements. Hackett spoke about her difficulty attending physical lectures and that online learning finally allowed her to “fit my course around my disability”. Hackett also noted her experience with online learning was almost entirely positive.

Courtney McGrath, the TCDSU Officer for Students with Disabilities for the 2019/20 academic year, shared her experiences with online learning as a profoundly deaf student with cochlear implants. McGrath highlighted the advantage of being able to record online lectures but that there were no subtitles or captioning on Blackboard or Panopto, so she found she was frustratingly missing information. McGrath subsequently discovered that there is in-buit captioning in the Panopto app that just requires College to switch on.

McGrath highlighted her anxiety of not hearing something correctly in an online class and being called out for not paying attention. This feeling of anxiety was expressed by other participants in the video.

The consensus of the video is that online learning reduces the stress of normal lectures but many participants in the video also pointed out their struggles with the lack of structure and the difficulty to stay organised during online learning.

Continuing to support and improve online learning will have major impacts on the lives of students with disabilities as they access education

Director of the Disability Service, Declan Treanor, stated that “Whilst College reimagines the curriculum for 2020-21 in the blended-hybrid online and face-to-face environment, there is a need to ensure that no students are left behind by shifting the focus from increasing access to achieving inclusion in all aspects of the blended learning environments.”

Treanor continued to say that “students in this video have given honest views on the positives and negatives of online teaching and assessment. It is important to hear what students are saying. This provides us with a timely opportunity to embed inclusive principles which value the diversity of the student body and enhance the learning experience, thereby enabling all students to access and engage with modules, programmes and courses, participate fully in learning activities and demonstrate their knowledge and strengths through a varied suite of inclusive assessment tasks.”

These investigations into online learning have proven that it has features that need improving upon but it has huge potential. Continuing to support and improve online learning will have major impacts on the lives of students with disabilities as they access education. Hopefully, this information will be used to improve online learning and examination systems for the coming academic year for all students.

Should this online learning continue? Signs point to yes, but there is need for improvement. Online learning in Trinity started with the coronavirus crisis but cannot be allowed to end there – it has only just begun. As a minimum, any accessibility improvements that can be added quickly, such as captioning in Panopto, should be implemented now. Students with disabilities should be asked what will improve the online learning experiences going forward.

Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird is Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s Part-Time Officer for Students with Disabilities this year and a member of Trinity’s Ability Co-Op.

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